Dec. 13, 2013


by Stephen Dunn

The music was fidgety, arch,
an orchestral version of twang.
Welcome to atonal hell,
welcome to the execution
of a theory, I kept thinking,
thinking, thinking. I hadn't felt
a thing. Was it old fashioned
of me to want to? Or were feelings,
as usual, part of the problem?
The conductor seemed to flail
more than lead, his baton evidence
of something unresolved,
perhaps recent trouble at home.
And though I liked the cellist—
especially the way
she held her instrument—
unless you had a taste
for unhappiness
you didn't want to look
at the first violinists face.
My wife whispered to me
This music is better than it sounds.
I reminded myself the world outside
might be a worse place
than where I was now,
though that seemed little reason
to take heart. Instead
I closed my eyes, thought about
a certain mezzo soprano
who could gladden a sad day
anywhere, but one January night
in Milan went a full octave
into the beyond. Sometimes escape
can be an art, or a selfishness,
or just a gift you need
to give yourself. Whichever,
I disappeared for a while,
left my body behind to sit there, nod,
applaud a the appropriate time.

"Mercy" by Stephen Dunn from What Goes On: Selected and New Poems 1995-2009. © W.W. Norton, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of mystery novelist Ross Macdonald (books by this author), born Kenneth Millar in Los Gatos, California (1915). He also published under the names John Macdonald and John Ross Macdonald. He is most known for a series of novels starring Lew Archer, a private investigator. Macdonald named his character after Sam Spade's dead partner in Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon (1930).

Macdonald spent most of his early life in Canada, where his father worked for a time as a harbor pilot. His parents separated when he was three. His mother suffered from typhoid fever and couldn't support the both of them, so he moved in with many different relatives during his childhood. He wrote, "I counted the number of rooms I had lived in during my first sixteen years, and got a total of fifty."

He read a lot growing up, even climbing the fire escape of the town library at night so that he could read the authors who were off limits to young people during the day.

Macdonald published his first story in 1931 in his high school newspaper, and he said it was a parody of Sherlock Holmes. He graduated from high school in 1932 and worked for room and board as a farm laborer for a year before going to college.

His wife, Margaret Millar, also wrote mystery novels, and was the first of the two of them to make any money from their writing. Her first book was The Invisible Worm (1941), and the money they made from that allowed Macdonald to quit his job teaching high school and attend the University of Michigan.

He wrote, "Never sleep with anyone whose troubles are worse than your own."

Macdonald served as president of the Mystery Writers of America organization in 1965. In his later years, he spent three or four hours a day writing. He used spiral-bound notebooks, filling about three pages a day while sitting in the same bedroom chair where he wrote all of his books for three decades. He worked on several books at once, sometimes getting ideas for his plots by sitting in on local criminal trials.

Macdonald spent his free time bird-watching with his wife. He was a very private man, but also a dedicated conservationist. He sometimes came out of hiding to take part in protests for preserving the environment. He and his wife were particularly active in the efforts to save the California condor from extinction.

His later novels include The Underground Man (1971) and Sleeping Beauty (1973), and both have environmentalist themes.

It's the birthday of German poet Heinrich Heine (books by this author), born in Düsseldorf, Germany (1797). He's one of the most popular German poets of the 19th century. His father wanted him to become a businessman and got him a job at a bank, but he lost the job when his father tried to involve him in an embezzlement scheme. He set out to study law instead, but he was the victim of rampant anti-Semitism. He eventually had to convert to Protestantism in order to complete his law degree.

Around the same time, he started writing a series of love poems, each one of which ended with an ironic twist. These poems were collected in The Book of Songs (1827), and they became extremely popular. Many of them were set to music by composers like Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Brahms.

He's considered one of the wittiest German writers of all time. He once said, "The Romans would never have found time to conquer the world if they had been obliged first to learn Latin."

It's the birthday of poet James (Arlington) Wright (books by this author), born in Martin's Ferry, Ohio (1927). Wright's whole youth was aimed at leaving his small hometown. His father worked at the same glass factory for 50 years, and his mother left school at 14 to work in a laundry. Neither went to school past the eighth grade. He was the middle of three sons.

He started writing poetry when he was 11, when a friend tried to teach him Latin and also gave him a copy of the collected works of Lord Byron.

Wright suffered a nervous breakdown in 1943 and missed a year of high school. He graduated a year late, in 1946, and joined the Army. He was stationed in Japan, and when he retuned to the States, he went to Kenyon College on the GI Bill. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1952. After college, Wright married his high school sweetheart, Liberty Kardules. She had worked as a nurse and a teacher in Texas. He depended on her to get around because he never learned how to drive.

He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Washington, where he worked with Theodore Roethke. When Wright finished his Ph.D., Roethke gave him a ticket to the world heavyweight championship fight of 1957 as a graduation present. He was also friends with Robert Bly, and their friendship began as Wright's first marriage was ending.

Wright taught at the University of Minnesota and then at Macalester College in St. Paul until 1966. He later joined the Department of English at Hunter College of the City University of New York, where he taught until he died. He loved being a teacher. He said: "I've written books of verse, but I'm a professor. And to me personally, teaching is the art that gives me the more pleasure. I'm not trying to put myself down as a poet, but I mean what I say. That is, the contact with my students, and my reading of books and trying to share my thoughts and feelings with my students, gives me more pleasure, and I honor this as a high art. Remember that the teachers include Jesus, Socrates, Siddhartha, Meister Eckhart."

Wright had a knack for impressions and would often be overheard entertaining children with his voices and jokes, but he'd always go back to the lower-class, undeserving Ohio poet around his colleagues. He said, "To speak in a flat voice is all that I can do."

Wright's first book of poetry was The Green Wall (1957). His Collected Poems (1971) received the Pulitzer Prize in 1972. He said of the award, "It'll fade, and I'll be a footnote in some high school anthology." He also said: "I didn't believe it; I thought I didn't deserve it. I still don't think I deserve it."

Wright suffered from a chronic sore throat, and in 1979 he was diagnosed with cancer of the tongue. He died in 1980 just after finishing his last book, This Journey (1982).

He said: "Sometimes there is a force of life like the spring which mysteriously takes shape without your even having asked it to take shape, and this is frightening, it is terribly frightening. [...] Being a poet sometimes puts you at the mercy of life, and life is not always merciful."

It's the birthday of playwright and actor Marc Connelly (books by this author), born in McKeesport, Pennsylvania (1890). His parents were actors, and his father also ran a hotel. Connelly moved to New York City when he was 27 and took a job as a theater critic for The Morning Telegraph. He eventually met and befriended his counterpart at The New York Times, George S. Kaufman, with whom he collaborated on a number of plays, including Dulcy (1921), Merton of the Movies (1922), and Beggar on Horseback (1924). Connelly won the Pulitzer Prize for Green Pastures (1930), a retelling of Bible stories through the framework of Southern African-American culture. Beginning in the late 1950s, Connelly followed in his parents' footsteps by taking up an acting career. He appeared in more than 20 movies.

He was also a member of the Algonquin Round Table — the last surviving member, in fact — and although he was often taciturn, he could trade zingers with the best of them, should the need arise. One man, feeling Connelly's hairless scalp, observed, "Why, your head feels as smooth as my wife's behind!" Connelly, reaching up to feel for himself, remarked, "So it does, so it does." He lacked a sense of urgency when it came to producing new work, though, prompting Kaufman to say, "Charles Dickens, dead, writes more than Marc Connelly alive."

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